Q&A: Longevity, Immortality, and Reincarnation In Yoga Philosophy
I have heard yogis say that death is a habit of the body. Because habits can be broken, this implies death can be prevented. Can it?
The subject of preventing death or at least staving it off has fascinated us throughout the ages. Yogis are no exception. In fact, the early literature focuses mainly on the yogis’ quest for immortality. The yogis developed two main ways to approach this goal. One involves making the body indestructible; the other is to identify with that aspect of ourselves that remains unaffected by the changes brought about by death.
The subject of preventing death or at least staving it off has fascinated us throughout the ages. Yogis are no exception.
According to the first approach, death is a habit of the body and by changing this habit, we can transcend the phenomenon of death. The body is made of five gross elements (earth, water, fire, air, and ether), which are constantly undergoing change. If the simple rules of nature are followed, anyone who is born must die—dust must return to dust. However, by practicing some of the higher techniques of yoga, these simple rules can be transcended and a yogi can achieve complete freedom from old age, disease, and death. This is known as kaya siddhi.
The tradition of Guru Gorakh Nath emphasizes this approach to immortality. Its followers maintain that we can achieve the purpose of life only while we have a body and that the greatest loss is to die without knowing ourselves at every level. They also maintain that the human body is fully equipped with all the tools and means for Self-realization. According to this tradition, therefore, it is of utmost importance to remain embodied so we may realize the Self in this lifetime, instead of dying and starting all over again in the next life.
To this end, these yogis developed techniques for rejuvenation and longevity, as well as for disintegrating and reintegrating the molecules of their body at will. The first three techniques are known as rasayana kriya, kaya kalpa, and parakayapravesha. The fourth and finest is asmita siddhi, through which a yogi creates his or her own mind, and from that self-created mind (nirmana chitta) creates a body (nirmana kaya). One who has mastered this technique is able to remain on this plane of existence at will, thus bypassing the process of death and birth. The emphasis on the immortality of the body gave rise to the techniques found in hatha and kundalini yoga, as well as such esoteric techniques as vajra kaya siddhi, bala atibala, and mrita sanjivani vidya, which are described in tantric and Upanishadic literature.
The second approach to immortality the yogis developed is to disidentify from the body altogether and identify instead with that aspect of ourselves which existed before conception and which will continue to exist after death. This requires learning techniques for penetrating the different layers of our being—the physical body, the pranic body, the mind, the intellect, and the ego—and finally reaching the transcendental realm of consciousness where the soul dwells in perfect glory and bliss. This approach is upheld by the yogis of the Upanishadic order. They too are convinced that death is a habit of the body, but according to them it is not worthwhile to devote so much energy to changing this habit. Their approach is to use this body and the wealth it contains to uncover the immortal within. This approach gave rise to the techniques of raja yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and jnana yoga, as well as to different methods of meditation, contemplation, and prayer.
If we do not realize our essential nature before we die, do we really have to start all over again?
No. The scriptures clearly tell us we do not start all over. We start exactly from where we stopped in our last life. But it is a long time after we are born before we even think of committing ourselves to finding the purpose of life. First we have to learn to walk, talk, read, write, and accomplish all the other tasks of childhood and youth which the world imposes on us. This is necessary because all of the education and training we receive through our brain and assimilate into the conscious part of our mind is wiped out at the time of death. The soul remains unaffected and travels to the next phase of life, along with the impressions stored in the unconscious mind. These unconscious impressions, known as vasanas, are the factors motivating the unliberated soul to blindly search for a new body.
In this context, an unliberated soul is one that has mistakenly identified itself with the non-self—the body, mind, and objects of the world—and has become a victim of its own attachments, desires, and fears as a result. These false identifications are deposited in the depths of the unconscious mind and when the conscious mind, brain, and nervous system fall apart at death, these tendencies are the only motivating force for the soul. It is driven by these tendencies without knowing why, where, and how it is being driven. In spite of this helplessness, the unconscious mind of such an unliberated soul is governed by an extremely subtle force—prarabdha karma. Prarabdha karma functions like a shipping company working under the will of the Divine—it cannot make a mistake. Prarabdha karma places the unliberated soul exactly where it belongs. Thus we are reborn in the time and place where we will find an opportunity to pay off our previous karmic debts and complete the task of Self-realization.
The problem is that by the time we come to our senses and commit ourselves to Self-realization, a big chunk of our life has been wasted, and we have created innumerable new entanglements in the form of attachment or aversion to the people and objects we have already encountered. We have gotten so sucked into this world that we hardly have the time and energy to think of the higher meaning and purpose of life. If we are lucky enough to succeed in disentangling ourselves from these worldly snares there is usually very little time left—our energy is depleted, and old age has started knocking on the door in the form of sickness and despondency. It is in this light that the yogis say that if we do not attain Self-realization in this lifetime, we must start all over again in the next.
Does this mean that the spiritual understanding we have gained in the previous lifetime is totally lost?
No. This by no means implies that we completely lose the spiritual understanding we gained in the previous life. Just as vasanas remain with us in a dormant form, spiritual knowledge also remains in a dormant form. The scriptures offer a beautiful analogy to explain this. Just as a frog burrows in the mud and hibernates during a drought, coming out when the rains return, so does the jiva (individual soul) come out of its hibernation in the unconscious when it encounters favorable conditions (a suitable body). And just as the frog comes out of hibernation with its instincts intact, we come back with our memories—both spiritual and worldly—intact. However, unlike the strong instincts of a frog, our memories are faint.
Almost without exception, our education aims to brighten our worldly memories and help us become smart and skillful in the pursuit of survival and pleasure. Spiritual training and practice is at the bottom of the list and what little we receive is shrouded by the political and economic motives underlying most religious doctrines, dogmas, and superstitions. Therefore there is little to brighten the spiritual understanding we gained in a past life, and so in that sense, spiritual understanding does get lost.
Is there a way of reviving our spiritual memories earlier, before we really get entangled in worldly pains and pleasures?
When we are children, the greatest responsibility for reviving and restoring our spiritual memories lies with those who have the greatest influence on us—our parents. If they can create an environment conducive to spiritual growth, it will certainly help us come in touch with our own spiritual wisdom. An environment rich in love, compassion, selflessness, and tolerance can automatically awaken the higher self before worldly pettiness sets in. So when we become parents ourselves, we need to make a concerted effort to create an environment that will brighten and foster our children’s spiritual understanding.
An environment rich in love, compassion, selflessness, and tolerance can automatically awaken the higher self.
Another large measure of responsibility rests with our system of education. Currently this system is completely unbalanced. Spirituality is an alien element in the public schools because there is no understanding of the distinction between spirituality and religion. In private schools, there is an exclusive emphasis on a particular religion for the same reason. In the first case, students are given no spiritual foundation and in the second, they receive only a religious orientation and little or no spiritual understanding. Therefore, by the time they are mature, students either have failed to develop a sense of the higher purpose of life or they believe it lies in blindly following one particular religious belief.
When we become adults, the total responsibility for awakening our spiritual memories lies with us. We now have the freedom to choose an environment that can remind us of our essential Self. Creating and inhabiting such an environment is called satsanga (keeping the company of wise people). Svadhyaya (the study of scriptures, and self-analysis) is another effective way of awakening our spiritual vasanas. Last, but not least, committing ourselves to a meditative practice helps us withdraw our mind from the external world, turn it inward, pierce the interior layers of our being, encounter the spiritual wisdom stored there, and enlarge it until we finally experience the presence of the ever-existent reality within.